Friday, October 4, 2019

Battle Royale: The Game of School

Steve Hargadon, whose ability as an entrepreneur earns my admiration anytime I see his latest project, shares this point over at the Game of School website (one of his new ventures):
A few years ago I gave a talk on education at a conference being held at Google's main headquarters. I expressed my concern about the small number of students who when graduating high school saw themselves as "good learners," and about the much larger number of students whose experience in school left them believing that they were not good learners, and even more concerning, that they were not smart.
As I read his words, I wondered that maybe, "One possibility is that many students graduating high school did NOT have experiences that led to them be 'good' learners." Steve makes some excellent points in blog entry; check it out.


My mind kept coming back to the first paragraph of his blog entry. He goes on to ask, "What percentage of high school students to you think graduate as competent adults--that is, capable of living on their own, holding a full-time job, and even starting a family?"

For me, this post is really about asking what being a competent learner and how that translates into being an adult.

Are Graduating High School Students Competent Learners?

To play a bit with Steve's question, I suppose I'd like to know if high school students are competent learners.
com·pe·tent/ˈkämpədənt/having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.
What exactly do we expect graduating high school students to be able to do?  Let's start with something that is at the core of everything, that you would expect any graduating high school student in the United States to do without difficulty. Let's go with READING at HIGHER LEVELS.

Wait? Were you expecting me to say "Social Media and Digital Citizenship?" Or, wait, maybe you thought I was going to say, "Media Literacy?"

Nope.  Reading. Here's why.

Exploring Reading in America

Check out this graph:
Students’ Average Daily Reading Time
Fewer than one in five students averaged a half-hour or more of reading per day, and fewer than one in three read between 15 and 29 minutes on a daily basis. Source:
The same website that shares the graph above points out the following:
An analysis comparing the engaged reading time and reading scores of more than 2.2 million students found that students who read less than five minutes per day saw the lowest levels of growth, well below the national average. Even students who read 5–14 minutes per day saw sluggish gains that were below the national average. 
Only students who read 15 minutes or more a day saw accelerated reading gains—that is, gains higher than the national average—and students who read just over a half-hour to an hour per day saw the greatest gains of all.
 They include this graph based on PISA scores:
Socioeconomic Status and Reading Performance

What does this all have to do with Steve's point? Only that there's a reason why so many graduating high school students feel less than well about being good learners. One possible reading is that they aren't good readers. Check out this video by John Hattie on Teaching Reading. Some points:

  • "We stop teaching [reading] and assume it's been taught."
  • "We need to go in and teach [reading] skills."
This emphasis on reading is also supported by Mike Schmoker. Jennifer Gonzalez (Cult of Pedagogy) points out the following from Schmoker's book, Focus:
  • In the early years, students need time to read, not to do skills drills or reading “activities.” Schmoker points out that in the most effective reading classrooms, students “never, ever engage in cut, color, or paste activities that now occupy the majority of early-grade reading programs—more than 100 instructional hours per year.”
  • Students should be exposed to broad, wide reading of both fiction and nonfiction: “We learn to read well by reading a lot for meaning: to analyze or support arguments, to arrive at our own opinions as we make inferences or attempt to solve problems.”
  • Handle the paper load: Don’t collect or grade everything; focus feedback on specific issues rather than everything in a piece of writing.
  • Students should be involved in discussions at least three times per week, with established criteria to guide them

Are High School Graduates Who Can't Read Well, Failures?

Duh, no, they aren't. But I can understand this from a math perspective. How many times have I felt a bit dumb counting on my fingers to solve a problem? This is not a reflection on who they are as people, but rather, what we as a society have put a value on. More on that in a moment.
Another longitudinal study, this time of 26,000 students, found that less than 20% of students who were in the bottom quarter of reading achievement (0–24th national percentile) in third grade went on to attend college. At the other end of the scale, nearly 60% of the students who were in the top quarter of reading achievement (75th–100th national percentile) enrolled in college.
In other words, the strongest readers—students who were in the top quarter of reading achievement in third grade—were nearly three times more likely to enroll in college than peers who struggled with reading and were in the bottom quarter of reading achievement.
As I read more about what Steve was saying, I realized Steve was focusing on how schools have wounded our children. That is, that schools were graduating students who thought they were dumb, lacked the skills and strategies to be successful. Steve says:
The emotional wounds that they carried from school were life-long and deep, and as it turned out, surprisingly common. "I wasn't one of the smart ones" was a phrase I consistently heard. I began to believe that the institution that we depend on to help every child fulfill their learning potential could maybe be doing the opposite for the majority of students.
I believe every child can learn and be successful. The problem? Well, the problem is one I have been blind to, that I had failed to name even though I observed some of the effects on my own children.

The Problem

Steve makes a few more points, but I suppose I'll stop a quoting him and then share my response:
Schools are about learning, but it's mostly learning how to play the game. At some level, even though we like to talk about schools as though they are about "learning" in some pure, liberal-arts sense, on a pragmatic level we know that we're really teaching students is to get done the things that they are asked to do, to do them on time, and to make as few mistakes as possible.
I won't disagree that there is an aspect of schools, of work that involves learning to get along in human society.

What students need to be learning is how to read, write, solve problems, using a variety of text and media. They need to know how to process it quickly, then apply it in novel ways. I suspect that most graduating high school seniors can't do that. The WHY is because we, as educators, may not be doing what they need.

  1. In 2015, out of 72 countries surveyed, the U.S. placed 24th in reading, 41st in mathematics and 25th in science
  2. Educational Testing Service (ETS) administered a survey to see how millennials in the U.S. workforce compared to millennials in the workforces of other countries.
  3. Millennials will be the core of our workforce for years to come, and the U.S. economy will depend on them.
  4. The ETS survey showed that Americans ages 16-34 in the PIAAC survey were at the bottom in every category:
    1. reading
    2. numeracy
    3. problem solving
  5. These results show that the U.S. now has one of the worst educated workforces in the industrialized world (Goodman, Sands, & Coley, 2017 as cited in Marc Tucker's Leading High-Performance School Systems). 
In the United States, the problem isn't that the game of school, as Steve terms it, have taken over what we do in schools.

Results of Third Grade Reading Success
Source: 6 More Minutes

Rather, it's that what we're doing doesn't get the job done. Consider the following:
In no advanced industrial nation do a majority of high school students go on to earn university degrees. That means the majority of the members of their workforces have less than a bachelor's degree (OECD, 2017a). 
The economies of the advanced industrial countries depend on having a highly trained, and a very large, core of technical workers who can do most of the work.  
Vocational education and training (VET) systems have been redesigned so that the curriculum for VET courses assumes a high level of academic mastery. All students are expected to master that high academic standards. (Source: MyNotes: Leading High Performance Schools)
All students are expected to master high academic standards (which is learning to read and process information then apply it), even if they are going into vocational education and training (which is unlike our own systems in the U.S.). Is that expectation the same in the United States?

A Lack of Uniformly Applied High Academic Standards

"Why are your students scoring so well (90s, 100s) when they are going to be screened for MTSS and Special education?" The implication from this question is that students are assigned high grades, even when their performance is less than what it needs to be. The work is "cut-n-paste" and students with inflated grades don't get the support they need to be successful. That's a problem, especially when it's true. 

Consider this quote regarding high academic standards:
We want all kids to have access to a rich and challenging curriculum, and we want to support and motivate them all to achieve at high levels.This isn't what's going on in schools today. Some children get exposed to rigorous courses; others don't. Some students only get good grades if they master challenging material; others get good grades and promotions no matter what they do. That's unfair, particularly to those kids who coast through the system only to find out later how little they learned and how much it hurt them (Source: ASCD Educational Leadership)
Unfair. Hurt.
Source: Teen Statistics

The reason that graduating high school seniors, that students feel they are not "good learners," may be that our schools have failed to equip them academically. To say teachers are to blame for that would be to ignore the many other factors that affect what teachers do in the classroom. My experience was high school teachers was amazing...I can think of only one putz, and to be honest, he was doing his best, however poorly.

Source: Teen Statistics via website
In truth, if the definition of not being a good learner is lacking the skills you need to succeed, that is, reading, writing and numeracy, then they are not.

One would suspect that the emotional fall-out of that lack of preparedness, which has life-long consequences, would be perceived as negative. You learn to get along but always, always on your soul is the indelible knowledge (which is wrong), "I'm not good enough to compete."

The Indelible Mark of Failure

We spend so much time in schools. When we walk into schools, a part of the expectation is that we'll be happy, cared for and treated well. While that's true, we also learn about how other people will disappoint us, attack us, harm us (er, fights, stabbings, etc mark my experience in school). But in the final analysis, it is hoped that we will graduate knowing how to read, write, discuss, and solve number problems, think.

To the degree our experiences in schools prevent us from achieving that, they fail us. And, to the degree that we internalize those experiences as a reflection of our own less than stellar effort, we suffer those emotional wounds on ourselves Steve remarks upon. I can't imagine graduating and not being prepared for what's next. Yet, that's what happened when I left middle school without math skills. Thank goodness, reading and writing were up to me. I had solid experiences that prepared me in grade school and endured.

What if I had not had those? I would be no better off that many of the children in an urban city school district who lacked support and education in school.

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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